Exhibition opener first real test for Bears' youngsters

It's nice to shine in practice, but doing it in game situations crucial

Looking at my notebook from a practice session last week in Bourbonnais, I had wide receiver Joe Anderson's name circled with my take on his speed, route-running ability and change-of-direction skills scribbled down all along the margins.

I was impressed with the young receiver. Watching Anderson work during individual period, 7-on-7 and during the 11-on-11 drills, I had the feeling he could make this Bears team if he stayed healthy and showed the consistency of a pro wideout on a daily basis.

But the real test for Anderson — and for plenty of young players fighting for a spot on Marc Trestman's roster — will start Friday night in Charlotte when the Bears play the Panthers in the exhibition opener.

Sure, what you do on the practice field during training camp is a part of the evaluation process. You need to show the coaching staff that you can handle the playbook install as a young player, win some matchups in 1-on-1 periods, correct mistakes and improve your technique as the calendar rolls on.

And when a bubble player can generate some buzz — as Anderson has — then we all take notice.

However, making some plays in blitz period (with no tackling) on the practice fields isn't the same as doing it versus the live competition of the NFL preseason schedule.

The speed is going to increase, game situations become a priority and your conditioning level is tested during a long drive in the summer heat. There is no practice script and the coaching staff won't be on the field to correct your technique after every rep while they are standing 5 yards behind the huddle.

You are now on your own to make the plays.

Look at cornerback Isaiah Frey. The second-year man spent the 2012 season on the Bears' practice squad, but he has turned some heads at camp with his ability to get his hands on the football. Anyone who has watched practice can see the improvements Frey has made from a physical standpoint, and his technique is noticeably better.

With the hamstring injury to veteran nickel back Kelvin Hayden, the opportunity is there for Frey to see more reps during practice. That's exactly what you want as a young player looking to get in the mix.

However, Frey has to carry that over to the exhibition games on defense and by producing on the four core special teams units (punt, punt return, kickoff, kickoff return).

Along with Anderson on the offensive side of the ball, the athletic ability of Fendi Onobun has been talked about since OTAs and minicamp. A tight end with a basketball background, Onobun has flexibility in his hips and could be another target for quarterback Jay Cutler this season.

But once the ball is kicked off on Friday night — and throughout the preseason schedule — he has to show the ability to block in the run game, beat a defender on the release and display some open-field skills after the catch.

The same can be said for rookie wide receiver Marquess Wilson. The seventh-round pick has made some plays during practice, but he won't see defensive backs pulling up to avoid collisions against the Panthers' second- and third-team defensive units.

And don't forget about Brandon Hardin. The former third-round pick missed the entire 2012 season with an injury and is involved in a crowded competition for a backup role in the secondary.

Can Hardin make impact plays at the safety position and also show up in the kicking game? He needs some good film to prove to the coaches he belongs on this roster.

The Bears have scaled back the hitting in Trestman's camp and there are no live situations such as goal line or short yardage, nor has the team scrimmaged to date.

But that's about to change.

Getting it done on the practice field is the first step, but if you want to make the club in the NFL, then you need to stand out when the film is rolling in the preseason.

Twitter @MattBowen41

Special contributor Matt Bowen, who played at Glenbard West and Iowa, spent seven seasons in the NFL as a strong safety.

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